Experts ask: Should we really be concerned about a physician shortage?

Male doctor in white lab coat
The experts from the University of Pennsylvania argue that there are enough doctors in the U.S. to serve patient needs. (Getty/Saklakova)

Conventional wisdom is that there's a looming physician shortage in the U.S. But is it true? Experts have arguments for both sides of the issue. 

A trio of experts from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania say there are enough physicians practicing in the U.S. to cover patients' needs now and no signs that's going to change any time soon.

One sign that there isn’t a shortage of actively practicing docs is that wait times haven’t significantly increased, despite the fact that more people are seeking care in the wake of insurance access expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Even for the growing population of Medicaid patients, wait times did not increase substantially, though they do wait longer than the privately insured at appointments, the authors wrote in a Viewpoint article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

RELATED: Medicaid patients wait longer at office visits than those with private insurance

The authors also compared the number of physicians practicing both primary care and specialty care to panel sizes recommended by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It estimated that if each of the some roughly 388,000 full-time PCPs cared for a panel of 1,500 patients, then more than 583 million would have access to care, far more than the population of about 240 million adults in the U.S.

In a counter JAMA article, two representatives from the Association of American Medical Colleges write that an imminent physician shortage requires “multifaceted intervention,” and ongoing uncertainty about the future of health reform could impact the future of the clinical workforce. Data projections suggest a lack of needed physicians in both specialty and primary care, and that the shortage will impact both urban and rural areas, they argue.

RELATED: Physician shortage could hit 100K by 2030

For one, a shortage of physicians will be exacerbated by the fact that a third of those actively practicing now will be 65 or older within a decade. In combination with the aging population, this could lead to far more patients needing complex care than there are doctors available to provide it.

The article also notes that efforts to use other clinicians such as advanced practice nurses and physician assistants to fill the gaps is not a long-term solution, as new technological innovations will still require physicians to take on key roles in a care team, even if they can delegate some tasks to other clinicians.

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